Wednesday, April 2, 2008

A Proactive Education

I straddle a strange fence, a toe in two different worlds. On the one hand, I’m a professional educator. I taught public school and hold a K-12 teaching certificate, write curriculum and conduct teacher training workshops for public school teachers. My toe has been digging around in that world for almost twenty years.

Yet, on the other hand, I’m a mom. And as a mom, I’ve pursued the best possible educational scenario for my children, a picture that’s looked different for each of my four children. But the picture I need to explore today is homeschooling.

Almost seven years ago, we made the rather abrupt decision to homeschool our daughter after she completed one year of public school kindergarten. During that year, I’d slowly watched my bright, inquisitive daughter become rather apathetic. She observed that she could complete projects faster than other kids and made comments about how she didn’t have to work very hard because it was so easy for her. The camaraderie that she and her brother—just 16 months her junior—had once experienced was suddenly gone, since she was “older” and “a kindergartener.” After being identified as TAG (“talented and gifted”…not necessarily a helpful label), she started getting pulled out of class to work one-on-one with a teaching assistant on harder materials…an assistant that could have been helping the non-English speaking or the non-writing or the non-reading children in the room. When the assistant wasn’t available, she was provided with a stack of worksheets to complete. It just didn’t seem like the best educational environment for her.

The reasons that we began homeschooling are not nearly as important as the reasons we continued. As a teacher, one of my primary concerns was socialization. I’d always been under the impression that homeschool kids were a bit socially retarded. I guess I pictured them as holing up in their caves at home and only coming out for social air a couple times a year. The first year we homeschooled, I was thrilled to learn of educational and social opportunities for homeschoolers in our local community. I signed up. And up. And up. One day I realized that we were doing so much socializing that we weren’t left much time to school. So we cut back. But I noticed that each time my children had a social opportunity, they were often the first to make new friends; it was like the self-confidence they’d developed from extra time at home flowed over into peer time, giving them an advantage when it came time to be around other kids.

From the beginning of the homeschool experience, my kids knew that they could go to school if they wished. Each year they said no. I sometimes questioned whether we were doing the right thing. But by around 4th/5th grade I learned that if my daughter enrolled in school, she would be student number 35 or 36 in her class. As a public school teacher I’d always made the bull-headed comment that “I will never homeschool my kids!”…except for one condition…class size. I knew that if class sizes were out of control that I would consider it. As a teacher I knew far too well what a negative impact a large class size could have on the learning process. I was not going to send my 4th grader to a class of 35+ kids. So we continued.

Over the years, the benefits of homeschool have overwhelmed me. Here’s my short list…

1. My kids can complete “school” in just a few hours. In the early grades, they could finish in less than two hours, these days (middle school), in less than three. It's not hard to understand why. I read about a local kindergarten of over 30 students who have to spend upwards of 30 minutes to get everyone's shoes on and tied when they change into their regular shoes after P.E.

2. Because they’ve been homeschooled from such an early age, they are incredible innovators. They are always busy doing something educational, whether they realize it or not. My son (11) designs web pages (self-taught), mixes music on the computer, and is obsessed with playing the guitar. My daughter (13) makes polymer clay creatures to rival professionals. She writes poetry and stories for fun, submitting them to a kids’ writing circle group on-line. I remember as a public school student being “bored” when I had days off. I did love to read, but outside of that, my ability to do constructive things with free time was limited. I was used to other people dictating my every move. In contrast, my children are never bored. They are thrilled when “school” (supervised by mom) is done so they can “play." And interestingly enough, their “play” often ends up being educationally superior to “school.” (And they don’t watch t.v. or play computer games during the day.)

3. Because our day hasn’t been limited by someone else’s parameters, we’ve been able to do incredible amounts of “extra-curricular” activities: piano, violin, fiddle, orchestra, guitar, LegoRobotics, soccer, basketball, church activities, Shakespeare production, volunteering at preschool…the list goes on. They could have never done all these activities (many now at an advanced level) if they were on a public school schedule.

4. While they have many peer friends, they also have many friends who aren’t the same chronological age. In the homeschool world, age matters less than interests.

5. My children are very close to one another. Whether they want to admit it or not, they are each other’s best friends. Our family is extremely close.

6. We have a flexible schedule. If it's a nice spring day, we can go to the zoo or to a park. If it's 100 degrees in the middle of summer, we can have a normal school day in the comfort of our cool house.

7. We are able to spend large amounts of time outdoors...a huge bonus physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

All that to say…I put my daughter Lizzi (13) in public school this week.

We don’t know what’s best for her as she approaches 8th grade and high school. We feel that she needs to be heavily involved in the decision-making process, but she needs enough information to make that decision. So, on Monday, she entered public school.

I hope to have her write a guest blog about her impressions (they are many), but here are some tidbits from me…remember, the person who continues to ride that professional/mom fence.

On her first morning at school, the principal invited my daughter into her office to take a math placement test. As a teacher, I understand that test scores are the overriding force in today’s educational environment. What I wasn’t prepared for was the fact that nothing else mattered. Since my daughter was a homeschooler, we didn’t have file of student records to transfer from another school, but I was prepared to be asked questions about content she’s covered, strengths and weaknesses in her educational abilities, past test scores, or even current interests. I figured we’d be asked for work samples. I thought we’d be asked about her “story.” We weren’t. She took a 14-question math test and was placed. The principal didn’t review the test with her, so Lizzi didn’t know which ones she missed. When she got home, she asked us what “that mark with the squiggle” is and drew us a square root symbol. We’d briefly touched on the symbol years ago, but had thoroughly covered the concept of square root, exploring it with visual models. When we told her what the symbol stood for she immediately said, “Oh, so then the answer was ___.” She was right, but no one asked her any questions, so they don’t know what she knows.

Yesterday, the principal happened to substitute in her language arts class and gave the class the test to qualify to represent the school in the local spelling bee. My daughter thought the principal looked surprised when she learned that the new student placed 2nd. But, then again, the principal also doesn’t know that Lizzi just finished performing the role of Queen Margaret in Richard III. Neither does she know that this young fiddle player will be performing on a radio station on Saturday morning. (Although she was very concerned to learn that my daughter would sometimes miss the last period—an elective—because she has to attend music lessons.) She doesn’t know that Lizzi has won awards for her writing. She doesn’t know that she has been involved in field testing math curriculum. She doesn’t know that Lizzi’s team won second in the state in the LegoRobotics competition. But what’s sad is that it doesn’t matter.

In our school system today, what matters is testing. Yesterday, in 90 minutes, one of Lizzi’s classes was assigned only a handful of problems (what we would have normally done in minutes at home) because some students were pulled for testing. Lizzi’s testing number wasn’t ready yet so she’ll likely be pulled out today or tomorrow. And then at the end of the year, she’ll spend another two weeks—one in math and one in language arts—testing.

Let me make it clear that I do not fault teachers. If I were in their shoes, I would have no choice but to do what they’re doing. Our system is broken.

I’ve been following a series by Robert Cringely about education in America. It made me consider the idea of reactive vs. proactive education.

These days, much of our public school system is in the reactive mode. No Child Left Behind is a reaction to the perceived current state of affairs. Testing is a reaction. Many of our educational programs/bandaids are a reaction. We react to problems, thinking it’s the answer to producing better students.

Sometimes homeschoolers live in the reactive mode. We pull a child out of school in reaction to a public school curriculum we see as having an agenda. We hear about school shootings and react. We want to keep our children away from something—agendas, adults with whom we don’t agree, other children who may not be the right influence.

But then there’s the proactive agenda. It’s a desire to have something rather than a desire to get away from something. It's a movement toward an ideal rather than a movement away from a perceived threat. It’s a desire to talk with our children about ideas, to raise children who are innovative and creative and love a challenge. It’s children who can think mathematically about big concepts and not just answer the set of algorithms that “every 7th grader needs to know.”

As a professional AND as a parent, I look toward the day when we pro-actively educate all children, caring more about their stories than the answers they get on 14 math problems. In the article I linked, Cringlely writes, "Most people would see the Amish as an anomaly, but I don't. I see the Amish as a particularly successful minority that picks and chooses how it will participate in modern life. We see a lot of this, especially internationally. Yes, the Amish have no army, but then neither do, in practical terms, many countries including some of our old enemies. The Amish do not suffer from avoiding public schools OR McDonalds. They live the life they have chosen to create." So how will we choose to create our children's educational future? Will we choose to live the reactive or the proactive life? Is it possible to garner a proactive education in today's public schools? Stay tuned...


B&B said...

Very interesting. I'm not sure of your reasons for returning your daughter to the system, but I have considered the possibility that some day, my youngest may choose to return. I'd hope that the system would be improved by that time, but I doubt it will.

Good luck to you and your daughter.
Hope it all has a positive outcome.

Vicki ~ unschooling mom to ds 10, dd 15 & dd 17 in college.

Jennifer said...

Sigh......Good stuff. Thanks for putting it out there.

KMDuff said...

This was well written and interesting. Thanks for sharing.

I like the concept you discuss of being proactive instead of reactive.

ralphhogaboom said...

Great post. I can see how you reached your conclusions - we're planning to homeschool our oldest next year, after she too finishes her first year of school a less shiny, happy girl than the one we sent to school last fall.

The word my wife & use for it is intentional lifestyle. Knowing your reasons for doing something makes all the difference in the world to us.

I'd read Cringely's article and thought much the same thing, including that his quote about the Amish was worth highlighting.

Keep it up! Great blog.

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